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So I’ve been reading a lot lately about the pain of independent gas stations and how they’re struggling with falling fuel prices.  It seems they haven’t been buying gas often enough to mark down their prices as quickly as their chain competitors.

Funny, but I don’t recall independent gas stations raising their prices more slowly than their chain counterparts. In fact, I remember them following rising prices lockstep.

Seems to me, if independents were buying gas as often then as they are now (i.e,, not as often as their bigger rivals) they would have been stuck with lower-priced gas. Thus, they could have raised their prices more slowly and undercut the competition, albeit at the expense of higher profits.

If you recall that happening, let me know. I could be wrong, as most mom-and-pop gas stations in York County, PA are gone — I can think of only two).

It’s easy to work up sympathy, but the effort shouldn’t cloud logic. If they were smart, independent-station owners have some extra cash left over from the days of skyrocketing prices (credit-card fees notwithstanding).

Or, like Wall Street titans, they thought “up” was the only direction prices could go.

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You’ll be fine. That’s the soothing advice a parent gives a 4-year-old who bangs his head on a coffee table. I would expect a little more from the leader of the free world, but that seems to be the basic White House message on the economy.

It’s technically correct that we “got through” the Depression. But it wasn’t because Americans elected FDR to be cheerleader-in-chief. It’s because FDR threw hundreds of ideas at the problem. Right, and then we fought a big war.

The bailout clearly isn’t going to be the end-all and be-all of too many economic crises on this planet. Nor is another interest-rate cut going to do the job. Haven’t we already had several hundred of those in the last decade?

If the crisis is truly one of confidence, then no technocratic solution will work. And nor will jawboning about giving those technocratic solutions more time to take effect. It’s ironic that a president who prides himself on taking action is now reduced to words in support of other people’s actions.

It’s stressful, no? Maybe we all could use a retreat to a nice spa, not just the frazzled execs at AIG.

So maybe it’s doom after all for the US economy. At any rate, I was mentally tossing around various causal factors for the mess and I settled on one possible psychological motivation — and it has something to do with Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s probably no accident that financial excess followed the tragedy of 9/11. Imagine traders walking past the visible scar of that day and wondering why some died, some survived. They drowned themselves in a sea of speculative trading. They took risks that make sense only if you’re heedless of the consequences.

It’s the reaction you might have if your best friend died in some senseless, horrible accident that might have claimed you as well. But you went on living anyway. And drank — or gambled or sky-dived or high-speed raced — yourself into oblivion. Either looking for a reason why you survived — or, more aptly, trying to avoid looking. Financial types, known more for speculation than introspection, probably opted for the latter.

What’s also interesting is the flight to Greenwich you (or at least I) read about lately. That is, all the money now is being made by hedge funds in Greenwich. It’s the high-finance version of cocooning with the family in the suburbs.

I may be wrong, or not wholly right. But it makes just as much sense as ascribing it all to greed, pure and simple. Greed has been around for eons, yet it doesn’t cause financial panics every day. And it may not be the thing that drove every last soul on Wall Street. Greed is just the easiest and least controversial straw to grasp.

We used to have an economy based on making stuff. Now we have an economy based on making bets. Alas, we haven’t figured out what to do when those bets blow up in our faces.

America’s safety net is based on factory employment, not financial speculation. The theory, I suppose, is that people engaged in financial speculation do so with an eyes-wide-open appreciation for the risks. The theory appears to need some revision.

It’s too bad the healthcare system isn’t given to the same booms and busts as our financial system. Then people might actually be talking a bit more about real reform.

Indeed, if I were paranoid, I would say the credit crisis is just a way to divert attention from more serious, long-term issues. After all, banks make money by making loans. They’ll start doing it again someday. And, as I’m sure every mortgage broker never tires of shouting (even today): Interest rates are low by historical standards! Now’s the time to buy!

But alas, people tend to get sick on a fairly regular basis no matter the state of the underlying economy, so business for doctors, hospitals, etc is pretty steady. Kind of like the forward progress the Titanic was making after it bumped into the iceberg. Too big to sink?

If something is too big to fail, shouldn’t it be completely part of the government rather than lie in some netherworld between the public and private sectors? That’s the only question worth asking in light of the Fed’s proposed bailout of our two big mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

What also seems odd is the constant reassurance from figures of authority that nothing is really wrong, that Fannie and Freddie don’t really need any money from the Fed. Then why all the fuss and bother?

At some point, someone in power (and their enablers) will have to start reading from a reality-based playbook. How else do you explain the large number of people who believe the country is on the wrong track and the large number of pundits and commentators who insist everything deep down is really OK?

Maybe Phil Gramm was right. Or maybe, just maybe, if you start to think about it, just for a fraction of a second, as crazy as it may sound and despite all of Gramm’s degrees and years in public life, he has no idea what he’s talking about. He just wants questions about the economy to go away.

Now that sounds like a reality-based playbook for a presidential campaign in 2008.

Say what you will about the contest to see which presidential candidate (and which presidential candidate’s wife) is more patriotic. At least it managed to knock Bill Clinton back out of the headlines. The economy, the war, fuel prices, none of that stands much of a chance of seeing much airtime anyway between now and November.

I nearly fell down laughing when I heard someone on CNN talk about how the patriotism debate switched the topic of most news away from the economy, etc., an alleged switch that apparently benefits John McCain. I just don’t remember hearing much about those other issues. But I do recall heated exchanges over the motives and whereabouts of Bill Clinton in the aftermath of the Democratic primary.

I can’t quite understand the media’s fascination with the Clinton-Obama story line. Well, no. I can, given the obvious drama. But it seems that health care, the housing crisis, the war in Iraq all offer plenty of drama, too. They’re just more complicated and require a little more digging outside the beltway. Just don’t expect anyone to pick up a shovel.

In the meantime, I suspect Barack Obama is going to start taking a real beating from the netroots, given his penchant for announcements like this and this. But I suspect the campaign must believe it will help Obama appear more centrist if he is consistently under attack from the left. After all, the same strategy works for McCain, only with attacks coming from the right.

Obama’s decision to spurn public financing and the resulting storm, I first put down as some inside-the-beltway issue that wouldn’t much resonate. But the more I think about it, the more I think he made a mistake there. You don’t jettison systems or principles you supposedly believe in just because they’re inconvenient. Isn’t that the lesson of the last seven-plus years?

It’s good to see that an eternity in office hasn’t dulled George W. Bush’s sharp, pointy finger. He can still redirect blame with the best of them.

I’ll just take issue with one clearly absurd statement: that somehow farm subsidies are to blame for rising food prices. Farm subsidies have been around for decades and food prices haven’t been rising (at least as sharply) for that long. So clearly the blame lies elsewhere. For a clue, Bush should read the conservative press on this one. Yes, ethanol is the culprit, and plenty of people saw it coming.

My memory may be faulty, but I remember a certain state of the union address where a certain George Bush called on Congress to expand the mandate for producing ethanol. Congress agreed.

Too bad Bush’s memory isn’t as sharp as his rhetoric.

Here’s a summary of the trucker convoy and its impact on our nation’s capital. Not quite the million-trucker march that might have made a difference (photo credit to the Washington Post)…

President Bush got the first part right. Our eagerly awaited rebate checks will certainly help me cope with rising gas and food prices. The economy, I’m not so sure about. It’s nice to have extra bread in my wallet, but it won’t make a difference if there’s no bread on the store shelves.

The problems right now are clearly broader than people not having enough money to spend, though that is certainly part of it. The trouble is that economic downturns don’t hit like a tsunami. They seep in, barely making a dent in our strong and understandable hope that things will always get better.

It’s too bad people didn’t have color cameras during the Great Depression. That sort of cataclysm seems impossibly remote to people surrounded by HDTVs, SUVs and 3,000 square feet of luxury housing. But what if it isn’t? I hope we don’t have to find out, But I also fear, given our optimism and complacency, that we won’t find out until it’s too late.

These photos are from the Depression (courtesy the Library of Congress). The people are generally thinner than us, but they had less to eat. Hmm. Maybe times ain’t so different after all…

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